The Gregariouness of Rooks
So many of you enjoyed writer Anne Boileau’s recent piece entitled A Tale of Two Woods, we are thrilled to present another of her works, The Gregariousness of Rooks. A delightful look at a familiar but surprisingly complex bird, this essay will lift spirits and eyes alike…
The Gregariousness of Rooks
If you see a rook on its own, it’s a crow. If you see a lot of crows together, they’re rooks. Or so I’m told.
Early spring is a good time to watch rookeries, while the twigs are still bare or only just coming into leaf. Rooks are busy building their untidy nests of heaped-up sticks, balanced high in the tops of tall trees.
Elms used to be their favourite choice, but now they must make do with poplar, oak or lime. (Anyone under the age of 40 scarcely remembers those mighty trees that used to hold up the skies over Essex, most notably on the Dengie peninsula.)
We think of rooks as being black, but if you can get up close and personal you’ll see that their feathers are iridescent like oil, catching a range of blues, purples and greens.
You may know the beautiful painting by Albrecht Durer of a Crow’s Wing. Rooks, like all corvids, live to a great age, are as intelligent as dogs and enjoy a complex social hierarchy – Max Planck made an in-depth study of a colony of jackdaws and observed their entrenched class system whereby, for instance, a female of low birth is raised to the status of the most senior male bird if she becomes his wife.
Tony Bonner, one-time Lord of the Manor of Coggeshall, once told me it was the practice in his youth to shoot up into rooks’ nests in the spring to kill the first squabs; they tumbled to the ground and they made squab pie for tea. The breeding pairs then had to start again, but Tony thought that this practice invigorated rather than diminished the flock’s population.
The Bonners lived at Abbey Mill for a few years after the war. They repaired the mill and worked it, grinding oats for animal feed. There is a lively rookery near the river at Coggeshall Abbey. The monks would have watched those birds’ ancestors flying west in the morning and flying home to roost in the evening; they heard their caws and chattering, and watched them building their nests.
The rooks for their part looked down on the monks and lay brothers as they caught carp in the pond, ploughed and drilled the fields, set the mill going, adjusted river levels or tended their livestock.
Another rookery is near Stisted Church.
Many of you will have your own local colony.
We can’t climb up to the rookery and sit with them in the tops of tall trees, enjoying the view. But we can look up and witness their haphazard nest-building, their cheerful gregariousness, their optimistic outlook. The simple act of looking up can put you in a better mood. Here is what Sylvia Plath said about this bird:
On the stiff twig up there
hunches a wet black rook
arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
or an accident…
I only know that a rook
ordering its black feathers can so shine
as to seize my senses, haul
my eyelids up, and grant
a brief respite from fear
of total neutrality.
Anne Boileau, March 2020